At first, Arcadia seems like a quiet book. With fewer than 300 pages, its weight portrays a slip of a book. It isn’t. Lauren Groff knows what is necessary. She knows how to pack her words in a neat, small bundle. Arcadia expands, fills time and space, lives.
The life story of Ridley “Bit” Stone is told in four parts, one for early childhood, adolescence, adulthood, and middle age. This is also the story of his parents, Hannah and Abe, and of the commune of Arcadia, in which Bit was raised.
Bit is a kind soul. He had the best Arcadia had to offer and, though he is often accused of being wishy-washy, he remains steadfastly pigheaded in his loyalty to the ideals of his youth. Seeing the world through Bit’s lens, people are gentler and nature is more accessible.
Reading this book, I felt the tug on my English-major soul to write a paper, to explicate metaphors, to read all the many literary works mentioned that have somehow escaped me so far. This is a book for people who love books. I was already a fan of Groff, after reading The Monsters of Templeton, but she has gotten even better.
Forgive me for being personal, but I feel compelled to mention that, as the owner of an independent bookstore, the idea of Arcadia is familiar. My people aren’t the hippies of Arcadia, but they are still idealists. We have our own smells of ink, coffee, crisp paper, and musty paperbacks. I routinely have to answer the question, “Do you think bookstores/print books/books are dying?” My answer is always no. People have been bemoaning the death of the bookstore my entire life and the death of the printed book since I was in high school. Yet, here is Lauren Groff’s brilliant new book for sale in my store–in the downtown of a small town, at that!
Bit and his friends from Arcadia gravitate to each other long after their community is torn asunder. I won’t explain why because I want you to buy this book, read it, and love it. I would just like to say that I know what that feels like. The first store I ever worked in was a marvel of dust, words, and art. One of the most vivid memories of my time there was the day that our beloved leader told us, in hushed tones, that the store was closing. I found myself sitting in the floor of the literature section, surrounded by so many good friends in so many crumbling paperbacks, crying as though a loved one had died. Months after the store closed, we employees met up for dinner, not so unlike Bit and the Old Arcadians.
The genius of Arcadia is how timeless it feels. The particulars of time and place, the details that seem so specific, anchor the story and give it a sense of reality, which actually sets it free. Bit could be any child of any school of thought and the greater message would remain unchanged.